Racism, and Our Interpersonal Interactions

From a talk by Tim Jackins to the white people at the East Coast North America 
Teachers’ and Leaders’ Workshop, December 27, 2013, to January 2, 2014

I’m going to keep us looking at early defeats, isolation, and difficulties with relationships. These are part of racism.

We are smart, we’ve worked hard, and we know how to control the most unfortunate and active tendencies that racism has given us. We don’t act it out that badly, and it still affects us. We still have work to do.

The place we get to work is where it affects us in ways that we can’t stay aware of—in our interpersonal interactions. These play a role that gets people leaning away from us. What happens may be small enough that it doesn’t get opened up, doesn’t get talked about, doesn’t blow up. It just creates distance and makes relationships more difficult.

When we who have not been targeted by racism try to make contact with, try to form a relationship with, try to understand someone who has been targeted by racism, we are in a place where we don’t know things. We feel bad about ourselves, we feel guilty, and we try to act as if nothing is wrong. That’s not quite in the right direction, because something is wrong. And it doesn’t need to be hidden. It needs to be recognized, handled, and worked on. 

We have to realize that we don’t know how to make relationships very well with anyone, and when racism is involved we have even less experience. Someone who has been targeted by racism has had a different life from those of us who haven’t been, and from the people most of us grew up around. So we can’t slip into our automatic friendliness toward them and think that it fits the situation. We actually have to think and do differently.

All it really takes, of course, is thinking about and staying aware of them and our interaction with them. The place where we often have trouble is where we slip into old habits of taking up space, of speaking first, of trying to occupy attention—all unawarely. We don’t remember that somebody who has been targeted by racism has been made to stand back, be quiet and listen, and always calculate carefully how safe it is to show themselves at all. An effort needs to be made on our side, an effort that we don’t often make with each other. It is different from what we usually do with each other (and we also have to learn to do it with each other). We have to learn to actually see what’s necessary to let a relationship move forward. In this case, it’s trying to understand the effects of racism, and they are different on different individuals and different groups.

We get to figure this out and take initiative in a particular way. We get to help create the conditions in which the other person knows that it’s safe for them to take initiative. That we will be there, that we are interested, that our mind actively wants engagement with them. That we will help create the conditions in which they can be more sure that there will be some attention, that we won’t listen for five seconds and then go on and put in our forty-second piece, that we will actually be able to be with them. No struggle with oppression is easy, and we all have to struggle in our own particular ways. But we don’t always remember this about other people. We are often too immersed in our own struggles to really notice someone else’s.

Fighting this battle is not going to be easy, on either side. We are going to make mistakes. That’s fine. It’s fine that we are awkward in this. It’s fine that they are awkward. It doesn’t mean we have made a mistake and that we should stop. It means that we have to persist. We can remember the awkwardness for our next session and talk about it openly.

We often don’t think to work in sessions on our difficulties caused by racism. We still feel like we have to pretend with each other. So it’s important to notice all the little places where we get tense, and don’t know what to do, and smile that certain odd smile that can appear when we are trying to do the best we can. Then we can work on the feelings. When it’s hard to find the roots of the distresses, we can work on the effect they still have on us. We can notice the effect when it happens, and then remember it for the session.

We’ve come a long way in this work. We know that. Everybody on both sides of the line that racism draws in our midst knows that. And we all know that it’s still awkward. Our goal is to be able to make relationships with and care deeply about every single person. Racism is in the way of that goal. We need to remember the person that racism has kept us from. They are our goal. Our biggest goal is not to simply end racism; that’s a byproduct of what we are trying to do. It’s important, but only along the way.

I want to challenge each of us—in both groups, targeted by racism and not—to pick out a person or two that we have liked distantly but that racism has kept us from starting a relationship with, and then, over the days our two groups are together, begin building a relationship with them.

Let’s not let our urgencies push us into some sparkly little attempt. Essentially, we need to be around them and be able to think, pay attention, and communicate with them, just like with anybody here. We get to figure out the best way to do that with this particular individual. There are lots of people here that we haven’t figured out how to do more than smile and nod at across the room. We need to go in closer and closer. We won’t be able to get all the effects of racism off us until the relationships are forming. It’s only as we get closer that we get the full picture of racism’s effect on us. We will also get the reassurance of making progress against it, and that will make it possible to work on the distresses even more effectively.

We have time for a six-minute-each-way mini-session on how racism has affected us, and what the challenge is that we want to take on.1 (mini-session)

Every oppression divides us and confuses us. We become unable to identify our interests with those of others. We can be restimulated into being thoughtless of each other, even oppressing each other. A small group of us can then gather a large part of the resource by taking it from others. Being misled in this way has profound effects. We end up confused about ourselves. We can’t tell2 that we are the same as every other human being and that it is in our best interest to identify ourselves with everybody.

To play an oppressive role, we have to be confused about our relationships with everybody. If young humans could start out with enough human and material resource to be able to form a close relationship with at least one person, I doubt that they would ever exclude anybody.

When we as young ones see racism being acted out at somebody else, our world is immediately unsafe. If we see somebody being targeted, somebody we still recognize as being just like us, there is no safety left—especially if those acting racist are the people our life depends on. All of us grew up around people who had been saturated with racism, though they resisted it as best they could. Maybe they were completely defeated by it and so acted it out fully, loudly, and viciously. Maybe it was contained to some extent. But they all were affected by it. We could not avoid having racism pushed down on us in some way.

It can feel hard to take on3 what a society is saturated with. Racism comes in so early in our lives and is so saturating that it can seem difficult to pick it out from the rest of ourselves. It looks like it is us. How do we disentangle it and get rid of it, entirely? It’s hard for us to recognize how unsafe racism has made things between us. We just feel unsafe. We don’t understand that the feelings of separation have often been caused by racism.

People who have been targeted by racism notice the way white people mistreat each other. There may be something appealing about having more material resource, but they don’t want to be like the people who aim oppression at them. The extra resource comes at a high cost.

Let’s do a mini-session about our uneasiness with each other and why we don’t open-heartedly throw ourselves at somebody else, at anybody else in this group. Why can’t we? Why can’t we run toward someone with delight like a little one does? Why are we the way we are (laughter)—sullen, pouty, scared, hurt, bitter? Why can’t we even imagine daring to break free of it? Find somebody. Six minutes each way.

1 In this context, “take on” means undertake.
2 “Tell” means notice.
3 In this context, "take on" means confront and do something about.

Last modified: 2015-07-29 20:57:07+00